Originally written in the Spring on 2015. Interestingly, since then there has been a decline in NFL television viewership and the most watched MLB game in 25 years (World Series Game 7). With an influx of young, marketable stars, MLB certainly has a window to assert its place in the sports landscape. My hope is that it would embrace what makes it special and find the richness within those constraints.
Think pieces and talk radio debates abound regarding the future of America’s Pastime. Critics argue that the methodical pace of baseball makes it poorly suited to compete for attention (read: consumers) in a frenetic, digital world. As one author put it, “In an age of instant gratification, today’s fans desire entertainment that is fast-paced and straightforward… Casual fans are no longer willing to devote the requisite mental energy demanded by a nuanced game such as baseball.”
The truth is Major League Baseball (MLB) has issues that run deeper than shortening attention spans. But there’s no denying the sport has been clumsy in its engagement of America’s rapidly changing culture. Unable to connect with casual and potential fans, especially young ones, MLB’s fan base is aging and shrinking. As a result it no longer stands at the center of American life as it once did. So is it destined to be just another niche sport on the margins, too fundamentally out of sync with the culture to have any meaningful place in it?
The prevailing thought seems to be that MLB needs to become bigger, faster, and louder or fade into obscurity. In other words, Major League Baseball needs be more like the NFL. Pure spectacle. Constant urgency. High adrenaline. Steady noise. All on 160 foot jumbotrons…
A half-hearted application of this strategy can been experienced at Phoenix’s Chase Field during any regular season game. But efforts to make the fan experience bigger and louder have resulted is something that is architecturally and sensorily out of scale with the city, the fans, and the game. Chase Field feels like an airplane hangar that also houses baseball games. It is also a kitschy chain restaurant of a stadium with contrived additions (like a pool!). Attempts to infuse activity and make the experience more stimulating fail to “overcome” the methodical game on the field. In fact it makes it seem much worse, like house music and rodeo clowns during a golf tournament. Ironically, I think this confused identity contributes to the alienation of potential fans.
But there is a lesson in this: the methodical pace and nuanced character of baseball is not something to be overcome, it’s something to be embraced and celebrated. This becomes obvious to me sitting in Scottsdale Stadium in the middle of March, watching a Spring Training game. MLB does not need to become bigger, louder, and faster to stay relevant. Spring Training is none of these things, and it’s perfect.
Far from decreasing in popularity, Spring Training games saw a 9% increase in attendance in 2014, setting new records. What’s interesting is that people (if I may speak for people) are not coming to Spring Training games for a Michael Bay produced, adrenaline-filled entertainment experience. They come precisely for a slow-paced, human-scaled, shared experience that lacks urgency. The game becomes the centerpiece of a pleasant day with friends and family. Baseball serves as a pastime, the table around which people gather. And like the best tables, there’s a common point of interest, something for people to share and get excited about together. In this context the nuance and history of the sport can be savored and appreciated. And it’s here that MLB finds its endearing identity: baseball as America’s Pastime.
I recently posted a photo on Instagram of my three year old son eating a hotdog at a Spring Training game. That hotdog, along with his first experience with cotton candy, is what kept him busy most of our time at the stadium. A friend of mine commented on the photo, “See, baseball is all about the snacks.” Indeed. Baseball is about the snacks… and the people and the green grass and the blue sky and the smells and the organ music and the sounds, like the crack of a bat. Nothing else sounds like the crack of a bat. And then there’s methodical passage of time; the time is key.
It is exactly because we live in such a frenetic, digital world that we need slow, human, history-laden experiences like baseball. It gives us opportunity (an excuse even) to slow down and spend three hours outside with very little on the line, enjoying a cultural tradition. I am not opposed to updating the MLB experience, technologically or otherwise. But, attempting to artificially increase the intensity of the experience undermines what actually makes it great.
“But the ethos of Spring Training doesn’t translate to the regular season,” some might say. I think it can, and should. And as an example of what it might look like I’d point to one place where baseball is in no danger of becoming irrelevant: the north side of Chicago.
Full disclosure, I’m a Cubs fan. So naturally I think Wrigley Field is what the new heavens and new earth will be like (I’m half-kidding). Even though the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908, the team and their stadium have become so engrained in the fabric of their city that the neighborhood they play in is officially called Wrigleyville. Although it’s currently undergoing renovations (to be debated elsewhere), the 102 year old Wrigley Field still has a hand operated scoreboard. The stadium didn’t even add lights until 1989! When spring hits in Chicago it’s a given that the games will be sold out. People fill the coveted outfield bleachers, the equivalent of Spring Training lawn seats, to consume some Old Style’s with friends. When the seventh inning roles around (and everyone’s still there, BTW) the whole crowd joins in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”. “And it’s root root root for the Cubbies, if they don’t win it’s a shame.” But that’s OK, there are 161 more regular season games and 80 more home games to be with friends.
“But, those aren’t real BASEBALL FANS,” some might say. Sure, at Spring Training games and Wrigley Field there are many in attendance who more concerned with the food options than penciling a 6-4-3 double play onto their scorecard. But isn’t that what MLB would love to have? Do they really want only 70 year old baseball purists that adjust a players VORP in realtime from the stands? MLB would benefit from creating space where casual fans could gain positive associations with the sport.
And then just like other areas of life, people adjust their intensity of focus based on the ebbs and flows of the seasons. When the stakes increase (playoffs) people who have developed positive associations with a sport and team find joy in emotionally investing in it all together. The laid-back culture of 81 regular season games at a place like Wrigley Field does not result in a dispassionate fan base. I would argue it has the opposite effect. It creates a broader base of people with vested interest and association with the team. I submit ESPN’s documentary “Catching Hell” as Exhibit A of the passion of Cubs fans.
Legendary Cub Ernie Banks famously said, “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let’s play two!” I picture him standing by the ivy-covered brick walls of Wrigley Field on a beautiful sunny summer day in Chicago, a breeze coming in off of Lake Michigan. His statement perfectly captures the ethos that baseball should embrace: let’s linger and laugh and play a while longer, together.
So here’s to lazy afternoons and beautiful spring evenings, hotdogs, cotton candy, and the crack of the bat. Here’s to the history. Here’s to the nuance. Here’s to the slow joy of America’s Pastime.